…and one sexual harassment claim to ruin it.

I’ve borrowed (and amended) the wise words of American philanthropist Warren Buffett to highlight the reputational impact an incident of sexual harassment in the workplace can have.

But an interesting question I have recently asked myself and my colleagues is, “whose reputation is impacted by sexual harassment?”.

This question was prompted by a report released by LeanIn.org that explored what men and women experience in UK workplaces in the #MeToo era. According to findings, there appears to be a discrepancy between male and female colleagues’ perception of the reputational impact of workplace sexual harassment.

42% men said that the consequences of a sexual harassment case are more damaging to the career of the harasser than that of the victim. Whereas, 72% women said the victims pay the heavier price.

Worryingly, both of these attitudes continue to perpetuate the guilt and shame that feeds harassment; that is, victims are burdened by the guilt of damaging the career of the perpetrator as well as their own in speaking out.

However, there is a third party involved here. The organisation. What about the reputational impact to the employer? Indeed, a poorly handled – or worst still, ignored – complaint of sexual harassment can have a devastating effect on brand integrity, stakeholder buy-in, employee loyalty and customer appeal.

Indeed, the LeanIn.org report demonstrates the ongoing dissatisfaction of employees for the action of their employers’ in tackling workplace harassment and response to incidences; half of employees believed punishments are not harsh enough and 30% believed high-performing individuals are “never or rarely” held accountable.

The issue here is, when employees feel powerless because their complaints are not being listened to, taken seriously or adequately handled, they pursue alternative avenues for making their grievances known – most notably, social media, Glassdoor or even, the press. As a result, the reputational damage to the organisation spreads like wildfire.

While prevention is always better than cure, incidences of sexual harassment do occur, and no business – whatever its size – and no employee – whatever their seniority – is immune to being exposed, especially if harassment is overlooked or excused.

It is therefore essential that issues are brought to light and addressed head-on before they have an opportunity to escalate. This is achieved by empowering and encouraging your people, whether victim or bystander, to speak out and giving them access to effective (and more attractive than social media) lines of communication to do so.

And when concerns are raised, your employees need reassurance that they will be handled effectively. When someone speaks out, they need to be heard.

An anonymous reporting helpline – often operated by an impartial third party, just like us at Tell Jane – offers one such outlet, as does an online platform or chat function for instant advice and feedback. Employees are given the opportunity to be heard, while employers have the opportunity to respond quickly and effectively.

And if you do receive the dreaded phone call from the press or notice the unfavourable review on Glassdoor, act. Thoroughly investigate claims, and respond in a way that is considered, open and honest.

An organisation’s plan of action in responding to sexual harassment claims is as important as its prevention plan so be sure to have one in place. Again, involving the support and guidance of an experienced third-party HR consultancy for investigating, communicating and dealing with any incidences that have made it into public consciousness, provides reassurance to employees, employer, stakeholders and shareholders alike.

If you would like advice for preventing workplace harassment or are dealing with an incident currently, talk to us at Tell Jane by emailing me directly – lisa@telljane.co.uk

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Valuing anonymity- sexual harassment reporting at work

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